Intervention vs. Counter-Proliferation

In that last post I briefly raised an issue that deserves more sustained thought: how the Libyan war and the doctrine of intervention might effect proliferation, the pursuit of WMD by states and our efforts to discourage them.

I don’t know what the answer is, and a world of counter-proliferation theory needs to be absorbed to answer it properly. But hey, its Sunday and worth a post.

Reading Obama’s Wars overnight, it is striking that when they considered a new strategy in the Af-Pak region, Obama’s advisors briefly speculated on whether an invasion of Pakistan was conceivable, against a client state playing a double game in support of American and anti-American interests. They dismissed it quickly: on the basis that Pakistan is a nuclear state. Deterrence, it seems, can take effect.

Over the longer haul of the past few decades, the casual observer, or the despot, might note that obtaining a nuclear weapon is the only sure way to prevent a US-led invasion. After 9/11, we struck Afghanistan and Iraq, not North Korea or Pakistan. Nuclear weapons clearly weren’t the only reasons for those choices. But they did take the latter two states off the table as potential targets. Or at least in North Korea’s case, its nuclear programme of unclear status, and its ability to launch a massive retaliation against South Korea and possibly Japan.

In addition, Colonel Gaddafi was an ally who had not only renounced his support for Islamist terrorists, but had disarmed through a long negotiation with Washington. Whatever happens in the war there now, he doesn’t have the means to retaliate and destroy one of our cities. Having disarmed Libya, we later attacked it. You don’t have to be Bernard Brodie to see the pattern here.

This could all be marginal and trivial in the broader picture of non-proliferation. States don’t just pursue nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes, and even when their motivations are strong to obtain one, this is expensive, difficult and can also leave the state isolated in a hostile world.

But there is still a problem: the overriding pattern of our wars in the recent past reinforces the case in favour of obtaining WMD and a powerful deterrent. Regimes are typically strongly motivated to survive. In the wake of Libya, on the balance sheet for and against starting a nuclear programme to deter the US, a non-trivial ‘plus’ has just been added. With WMD, or with the rumour of WMD, the US might attack. Without it, they can with impunity.

Iraq muddies the waters a little here: after all, the basis for overthrowing Saddam was an alleged stockpile, or programme, in a fluid set of justifications for that war. But if he had possessed a completed nuclear deterrent with a second strike capability, its almost certain we wouldn’t have invaded.

So how will Tehran calculate and act from this point? Now that we have turned upon a disarmed former ally, hasn’t Iran’s case for nuclear weapons, and the case in Iranian domestic politics, just received a boost?

This could be overstated or just plain wrong. But its worth thinking about.